It seems that empowerment has become a dirty word, and work on empowerment has been supplanted by “engagement” (which, in practical terms, has the same result). Perhaps that is natural for anything that has been a fad, or perhaps most people do not realize that empowerment is aimed at the bottom line as well as the employees. Both explanations seem to work, since the same principle is still promoted, using different words (e.g., "flattening the organization").
Pushing power down to the lowest possible level - that is, empowerment - is quite handy, though. Senior executives can enjoy higher productivity and the flexibility that comes of being able to make fast changes. Managers do not have to do it all themselves, and are not bombarded with trivial authorizations. Employees find that their jobs are a better match for their abilities, and are more likely to stay where they are, despite a hot job market.
Here is why it works:
- When people are given the power to make decisions and take action on their own, managers are not constantly being called in for their authority, which saves them time and avoids constant distraction.
- When people can take reasonable action without needing to wait for approval, improvements take place more quickly. In addition, people are more likely to observe problems and fix them, because they have more personal involvement.
- Increased responsibility leads people to become more involved in their jobs, which makes it less likely they will move to another organization. That saves money in several different ways - for example, by cutting back on recruiting and training costs, and by avoiding the disruption of personnel changes. Companies with less desirable jobs have to pay higher salaries to attract (and keep) the same caliber of employee.
- When people are involved in their jobs and invested with the power to do what they know best, large-scale change is also more likely, because all the local, small changes needed to support the large change are easier to implement. People can see what needs to be done, and act accordingly.
There is lots of evidence that, when people are given clear direction, authority, and responsibility, it usually works out well. The job enrichment literature is full of examples of cases where, for example, having employees check and fix their own work reduces costs and increases speed. The principles have been applied to everyone from janitors to engineers. We refer you to the out-of-print New Perspectives in Job Enrichment for details.
One interesting method of empowerment, which is practiced at the Toyota/GM joint venture NUMMI (which builds Toyota Corollas), is providing employees who make suggestions with the power to see them through. In one simple stroke, NUMMI solved two problems - how to motivate factory workers, and how to make continuous improvement work over the long term. After all, the problem in most change efforts is not coming up with ideas - it's getting action.
What you can do
While people tend to think employees can only be empowered by senior managers, many of the limits on our personal power at work are caused by our own perceptions. Back when empowerment was still a popular fad, many managers no doubt said they had tried to empower their employees, to no avail. Since empowerment is as much a state of mind as a structural issue, this is not surprising.
I have helped to empower many people without making a single change to their working environment. Sometimes, it's as simple as asking what they want to do, then "why don't you do it?" One of my most rewarding consulting experiences involved a training session with half the members of a small organizaton, representing all levels from administrative staff to upper (but not senior) management. The training (in customer service) was side-tracked by tough questions along the lines of "I can't do anything to change it, so why are you telling me this?" Over time, and with my facilitation, people began to realize that they could make fundamental changes. Where the help of other people was needed, they learned that the other people had wanted to make the same changes. Though the training only lasted eight hours, the effects on the behavior of the participants was impressive. People started to work together to eliminate long-standing nuisances, so they could be more effective in their jobs.
It is ironic that professionals, who have much latitude in their work, often do not feel empowered. Helping professionals to go to the limits of their power, to bring their authority up to their responsibilities, is both rewarding and a good way to quickly increase the effectiveness of the organization.
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